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Can Charlotte FC Avoid Sophomore Slump?

A year ago, Major League Soccer was captivated by the story of its 28th and newest team, Charlotte FC. Calling Bank of America Stadium, the home stadium of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, their match grounds, Charlotte had plenty of questions going into last season.

One item that wasn’t a question was the public’s response to an MLS expansion team in Charlotte. The club’s promotional tagline was a simple question: “Are you ready to party?” On March 5, 2022, in a nationally-televised match on FOX Sports, The Queen City came out to party for the crown versus the LA Galaxy.

A record 74,479 supporters rocked the house that evening for the club’s first-ever regular season home match. Despite Charlotte going down in defeat 1-0 thanks to a 77th-minute tally by Galaxy midfielder Efrain Alvarez , the club had a night to remember, highlighted by the entire crowd singing The Star-Spangled Banner ahead of the opening kickoff.

Behind The Scenes Drama Leads to Managerial Change

Even though Charlotte FC capitalized on fostering a party atmosphere and made home games at “The Bank” a happening, the growing pains for an expansion team in American sports reared their ugly head. Three months into the season, with the club still having yet to record a victory wearing the away jersey and just one point out of a playoff spot, Charlotte fired its original head coach, Miguel Angel Ramirez.

In the firing’s immediate aftermath, a specific answer was not given as to why Ramirez was dismissed less than halfway through the team’s season.

“There’s not much point to speculate to exactly what happened,” Charlotte FC Sporting Director Zoran Krneta told the press at the time. “We made a decision for the best of the club. I wouldn’t want to go into details. It’s not going to help anybody. Some of you might think it’s difficult to explain, but it happens in sports very often.”

Even though Zoran Krneta offered a canned response about Charlotte FC’s decision to dismiss Ramirez as manager less than halfway through the season, it would become clear not long afterward.

Charlotte FC Risked a Mutiny if Ramirez Stayed

Reports on Ramirez’ termination indicated that the manager wouldn’t make himself available to his players in the wake of defeats, with some players feeling a lack of self-worth under his watch. An unidentified Designated Player (later believed to be striker Karol Swiderski) mentioned that he’d decline to suit up for Charlotte FC unless and until Ramirez was fired.

Major League Soccer was entering its June hiatus for the international double window at the time, two days after Charlotte FC suffered a road defeat at the hands of Seattle Sounders FC at Lumen Field. With Swiderski threatening to boycott matches, Charlotte’s decision to fire Ramirez was good in retrospect.

No team in sports, expansion or otherwise, should be faced with a potential mutiny among its active roster. Christian Lattanzio, a former assistant on Ramirez’ staff, was appointed as the club’s interim head coach through the remainder of the 2022 MLS season.

Charlotte FC Turns It Around Under Lattanzio

Almost two weeks after the firing, Charlotte returned to the pitch with a nationally-televised affair on ABC versus the New York Red Bulls. Christian Lattanzio would get his first victory on June 11 by a 2-0 final. A few weeks later, the team would receive its first-ever road victory on July 3 against the Houston Dynamo.

As someone who watched a majority of Charlotte FC’s competitive matches during the inaugural season, it was a night-and-day difference between the team under Ramirez and the team under Lattanzio. While Charlotte played well under the tutelage of Ramirez, Lattanzio’s version of the club was hungrier, more focused and particularly aggressive.

Charlotte FC Under Ramirez Lacked Intensity

This is something that we only saw brief glimpses of during Ramirez’ tenure. A textbook example occurred during the team’s May 22 home match against Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Not even two minutes into the match, Charlotte surrendered a goal from Vancouver forward Tosaint Ricketts, but it was in the eighth minute of play where forward Andre Shinyashiki tied the match off of a Swiderski cross just seconds after a throw-in, with Charlotte eventually winning the match 2-1.

This style of play was infrequent from Charlotte FC during Ramirez’ tenure, yet it would become more prevalent after the change in regime. On July 20, in a lightning-delayed affair, the club bested Chelsea FC of the Premier League on penalties 5-4 after a 92nd-minute tally from the penalty spot equalized the match by forward Daniel Rios (now with Liga MX side CD Guadalajara) at 1-1.

Meaningful Wins Down the Stretch Give Lattanzio Permanent Gig

After an up and down August, Charlotte FC needed to win every remaining game to have a chance to get into the MLS Cup Playoffs. The team saved its best soccer for the final month of the season.

Beginning on Sept. 10, Charlotte went on a three-game winning streak and four-game unbeaten run. A 1-0 win against 2021 MLS Cup champion New York City FC was the second victory for the expansion team in under a month.

Christian Fuchs, who converted a 91st-minute penalty kick in the first head-to-head meeting in August, was assessed a red card during the 56th minute of the second match. His one-match ban was increased to two following a review of the game film from Sept. 10.

It didn’t matter, as Charlotte came from behind vs. Chicago Fire on Sept. 17, followed by a 4-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Union on Oct. 1 where Rios set a team record by scoring all four goals of the match. In the final days before the Union match, rumors began to circulate that Christian Lattanzio would take over as manager permanently.

Rumor became reality on Oct. 26, setting up a bright future for Charlotte FC.

Sophomore Slump Not Likely For Charlotte FC

With Lattanzio now the full-time head coach in the Carolinas and Christian Fuchs now a member of the technical staff, there are sunny days ahead at Bank of America Stadium. Taking over on an interim status is no easy task for any manager, especially doing so in an expansion team’s first season in the league.

At the same time, however, Christian Lattanzio took the difficult hand that he was dealt and pushed all of his chips in. The team was able to play meaningful matches into the final week of the regular season and narrowly missed the playoffs. Not bad for a freshman club.

Final Thoughts

The only mistake Charlotte FC made was not appointing Christian Lattanzio as manager from the start of last season. Imagine just how different the club’s inaugural season might have been had he been the coach right away as opposed to from May 31 onward.

If Christian Lattanzio had been hired as manager from the beginning, Charlotte probably makes the playoffs in the expansion season. Charlotte FC has the right man for the job. Now, it’s up to the coaching staff, and the players. to apply themselves.

There’s no room for error now.

Main image credit https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/andre-shinyashiki-of-charlotte-fc-celebrates-while-wearing-news-photo/1395971923?phrase=charlotte%20fc&adppopup=true

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